New thinking about social systems

There is a great deal of important international work underway today within the philosophy of social science on the general topic of social ontology. How do social structures relate to the actions of socially situated actors? How does causation work in the social realm? Can we say anything rigorous about the nature of “levels” of the social world — micro, meso, and macro? And is there such a thing as an “emergent” social property or entity?

Sociologists and philosophers in Germany, Scandinavia, the UK, Belgium, France, Italy, and North America have undertaken serious work on these topics, and they constitute a dynamic network of thinking and debating. Some of the longstanding dualities in philosophy and sociology are questioned: individualism versus holism, micro versus macro, analytic versus continental, structure versus agent. Sociologists whose dispositions incline towards the importance of social structures are convening with rational choice theorists and game theorists; analytic sociologists are debating ontology with emergentists; and the field is displaying an energetic and productive degree of ferment.

The people whose work I am thinking of here are a motley group: Peter Hedstrom, Hans Joas, Petri Ylikoski, Bert Leuridan, Margaret Archer, Gianluca Manzo, Philippo Barbera, Pierre Demeulenaere, Julian Reiss, Rainer Greshoff, Dave Elder-Vass, Jeroen Van Bouwel, Mohamed Cherkaoui, … And it is roughly as challenging to keep clearly in mind the manifold debates that are unfolding as it is to watch the Indianapolis 500 as the cars rocket by at 200 miles an hour. Some of these contributors are long-established scholars with huge reputations; others are young scholars with wickedly sharp minds and awesome work habits. And frankly, I’m at least as impressed with the younger generation as the elder.

One recent book that stands out as a key contribution that permits a degree of geolocation within these tangled debates is Poe Wan’s Reframing the Social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory. Wan seems to have read every word of the debates, and he is ready to help interested parties take stock of the various theoretical perspectives. 

The key axis in Wan’s work — here and elsewhere — is that defined by Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge on the topic of emergent social systems. Wan is persuaded that social properties are “emergent” in some important sense, and he also seems to believe that the ideas of system and complexity are important components of our vocabulary for social ontology. But how should we understand these ideas? Luhmann’s theory tends towards the position of holism, whereas Bunge’s position allows that there is an intelligible connection between upper-level properties and micro-level facts and he focuses his theory of explanation on finding underlying mechanisms of various social outcomes. Wan refers to Bunge’s approach as “rational emergentism” (68). Wan is respectful towards each of these theories, but he clearly favors that put forward by Bunge. Like Bunge, Wan too favors the focus on mechanisms; he admires Bunge’s insistence on paying attention to the details of existing research in the natural and social sciences; and most importantly, he endorses Bunge’s view that our theories of “emergent” social phenomena must be grounded in a theory of the actor.

Here is how Wan characterizes Bunge’s systems theory and its relationship to a theory of the actor:

Bunge’s emergentist systemism is best construed as a version of action-systems theory …, because Bunge states explicitly that “the features of a social system depend upon the nature, strength, and variability of social relations, which in turn are reducible to social actions.” (6)

And Wan believes that Bunge’s approach provides a robust way of conceptualizing the nature of the social realm:

In Chapter 5 I argue for a systems approach that is ontologically sound (that is to say, transcending both holism [macro-reductionism] and individualism [micro-reductionism]), with due consideration given to the role of human factors and their actions in designing, maintaining, improving, repairing or dismantling social systems. (10)

Wan also believes that Bunge’s CESM model is a helpful one for thinking about social ontology and explanation.  This model incorporates composition, environment, structure, and mechanisms. For a given social entity we want to know what it is composed of; what are the features of the environment within which it functions; how is it arranged internally; and how does it work (55).

Another important part of Wan’s approach is his affinity with the social theories of the critical realists — Bhaskar, Asher, Elder-Vass. Fundamentally this comes down to the view that social structures have real causal powers, along the lines of Rom Harre’s meaning of this term (110, 119, 121). 

Reframing the Social is an important contribution to current debates about the nature of the social. And I agree with him that the question of social ontology is a fundamental one; perhaps more so than the issues of the epistemology of the social sciences that have generally played first violin. Further, Wan does a good job of showing how these debates are relevant to the emerging framework of analytical sociology — sometimes in ways that cast doubt on some of the guiding presuppositions of that field. In particular, the aggregative strategy of explanation that is favored by AS is questionable once we give credence to the idea that social structures possess autonomous causal powers. Along with Dave Elder-Vass’s The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, this book stands as an important alternative to Hedstrom’s Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology.

Here is a nice passage from the preface to the second edition of Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method that Wan quotes on the subject of emergence:

Whenever elements of any kind combine, by virtue of this combination they give rise to new phenomena. One is therefore forced to conceive of these phenomena as residing, not in the elements, but in the entity formed by the union of these elements. The living cell contains nothing save chemical particles, just as society is made up of nothing except individuals. Yet it is very clearly impossible for the characteristic phenomena of Iife to reside in atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. For how could living movements arise from amidst non-living elements? Furthermore, how would biological properties be allocated amongst these elements? They could not be found equally in them all, since they are not of the same nature: carbon is not nitrogen and thus cannot possess the same properties or play the same part. It is no less unacceptable for every facet of life, for each of its main characteristics, to be incorporated in a distinct group of atoms. Life cannot be split up in this fashion. It is one, and consequently cannot be located save in the living substance in its entirety. It is in the whole and not in the parts. It is not the non-living particles of the cell which feed themselves and reproduce – in a word, which live; it is the cell itself and it alone. And what we maintain regarding life could be reaffirmed for every possible kind of synthesis. The hardness of bronze lies neither in the copper, nor in the tin, nor in the lead which have been used to form it, which are all soft or malleable bodies. The hardness arises from the mixing of them. The liquidity of water, its sustaining and other properties, are not in the two gases of which it is composed, but in the complex substance which they form by coming together. 

Let us apply this principle to sociology. If, as is granted to us, this synthesis sui generis, which constitutes every society, gives rise to new phenomena, different from those which occur in conscious­nesses in isolation, one is forced to admit that these specific facts reside in the society itself that produces them and not in its parts — namely its members. In this sense therefore they lie outside the consciousness of individuals as such, in the same way as the distinctive features of life lie outside the chemical substances that make up a living organism. They cannot be reabsorbed into the elements without contradiction, since by definition they presume something other than what those elements contain. Thus yet another reason justifies the distinction we have established later between psychology proper — the science of the individual mind ­ and sociology. Social facts differ not only in quality from psychical facts; they have a different substratum, they do not evolve in the same environment or depend on the same conditions. (Rules of Sociological Method (S. Lukes, ed.) 1982:39-40)

(It is noteworthy that the passage raises many difficult questions, including the vitalism that Durkheim presupposes.)

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